"Fame" rivals -- no, surpasses -- "Urban Cowboy" as an example of potentially stirring movie material gone woefully astray.
In figures, British director Alan Parker, who flashed to prominence on the strength of mind-boggling kitsch like "Bugsy Malone" and "Midnight Express," was unlikely to take a lucid approach to "Fame," a dithering account of the up and downs of students at New York City's High School of the Performing Arts, which combines the required academic courses with specialized training in theater, music and dance.
One confronts nagging expository problems from the word go -- which may be the only word in Parker's hyperactive yet inexpressive stylistic vocabulary. The contrived dynamics of his films -- blunt, overemphatic scenes, cut jaggedly and restlessly -- suggests that he spends every working hour shouting "Go! Go! Go!" at the actors and editors. Cliches and absurdities pile up in the opening sequence, which depicts the auditions required of applicants and introduces the youngsters we're supposed to suffer and exult with during the course of four ludicrously compressed yet seemingly interminable years.
It comes as a shock, for example, when Maureen Teefy, a frozen-voiced girl further inhibited by a pushy mom, is accepted and goes on to become the reigning ingenue. If she's getting in, some other kid is getting gypped. Irene Cara, slimmed down from her "Sparkle" days and sustaining the most attractive presence (despite bird-brained writing) of the seven or eight principal figures, mentions a quota system. The selection process as depicted by Parker implies truly wacky quotas. Teefy must satisfy the Worst Stage Mother quota. Barry Miller, cast as a fierce Puerto Rican kid who idolizes Freddie Prinze, must be Least Promising Young Funnyman.
Although Gene Anthony Ray, cast as a defensive, illiterate kid from the black slums, reveals indisputable dancing ability, his audition is calculated as a lewd comic turn-on for the female teachers. He appears to cop the Young Stud scholarship.
Straining to make the auditions incisive and funny, Parker introduces both the characters and the school haphazardly. The reaction shots of teachers cringing and wincing at the gaffes of auditioning kids are obviously cues for the audience. The P.A. faculty would certainly take these moments in stride, having seen them all before.
Could anyone believe the snarling hostility constantly renewed between the virtually illiterate Ray and English teacher Anne Meara? If the boy's reading problems were that bad, unlikely he'd be admitted. Moreover, you know in advance that the hostility is destined to be resolved by an equally trumped-up scene of "understanding" -- ickier than anticipated in this case. Only the brief scenes in acting class carry dramatic conviction, because Jim Moody appears to be a serious, effective teacher.
Parker and screenwriter Christopher Gore (the librettist of the fabled Broadway flop "Via Galactica") prove inept at sustaining the thinnest threads of dramatic interest. Overcompensating, they go for the jugular. Miller may not have a funny bone in his body, but his little sister gets assaulted by a child molester. Impact! Wealthy, snooty ballet student Antonia Franceschi is punished for luring Ray away from Cara when she ends up in the abortion clinic, soliloquizing like poor Ophelia.
The hypocritical pip is an outrageous episode in which Cara is conned into a porno film audition by an obvious degenerate. This is supposed to be a big city girl with a few city smarts, in her senior year yet. While inviting the audience to detest the creepo who exploits her, the filmmakers neglect to look the other way when she lowers her blouse.
There's little integration of authentic school performances. Parker prefers his mock-spontaneous production numbers, in which youthful exuberance is supposed to erupt with transforming lyric impact in the school cafeteria and out on 46th Street.
Like Parker's earlier features, "Fame" is a stylistic self-advertisement. The locale has shifted, but one recognizes the identical false urgency and coy tumult. Parker seems destined to spend his career whipping up ephemeral picturesque frenzies.